This one’s not a true story, but still checks the Oscar boxes by being a period piece, being based on a Pulitzer-winning play, and tackling the subject of race.
Denzel Washington (who also directs the piece) and Viola Davis both capital-A Act their asses off in the the two main roles (although Davis is strategically nominated for a supporting, rather than lead role Oscar), and both give sufficient proof of their mastery of the craft.
Unfortunately, Fences is less a translation than a transcription to the film medium – the source material is essentially unchanged, and as a result it feels like watching a filmed play. The capacity for visual storytelling—perhaps film’s most powerful tool—remains almost entirely untapped, and the piece ends up being essentially a long string of masterfully-acted exposition-heavy monologues.
The themes present in the film (sacrifice, duty, family, intergenerational trauma, race and the American dream) are powerful, and are explored effectively, if blatantly.
In the end, I was left feeling that I might’ve preferred the added layer of rawness and intimicy afforded by a live stage performance.
Verdict: Just search YouTube for Denzel’s opening monologue and Viola’s closing one. You’ll pretty much get the gist.
Prediction: The film is nominated for Best Picture, Actor in a Leading Role (Denzel Washington), Actress in a Supporting Role (Viola Davis) and Adapted Screenplay. The strategic choice is bound to pay off here, as Viola Davis will certainly take home the Actress in a Supporting Role win. Her only real competition is Michelle Williams from Manchester by the Sea, who is hamstrung by her very limited screen time in that film. Washington is also up against his Manchester by the Sea counterpart, Casey Affleck, although the race is much tighter here. Although Affleck deserves the win, I predict that the Academy will reward Washington’s very visible actorliness, as well as his more prestigious career, and he will take home the Actor in a Leading Role statue. August Wilson’s writing is excellent in the screenplay as in the play, but it’s not so much “adapted” as “filmed”, so no dice there.